Hopkins Festival Lectures 1987 - 2017

Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins compared to the Victorians

Hugh Kenner Athens Georgia USA

What line of Hopkins first springs to mind? Why surely, it must be Glory be to God for dappled things ... (31) — which straightway collides with a dictum of Samuel Johnson's, for whom surface clutter portended trivial art. To be numbering the streaks of the tulip was not the poet's business; a poem derived its effects from the Grandeur of Generality. That way of thinking would be influential clear into the time of Hopkins, who thought otherwise.Look back now to a poet who died the year Johnson was 35: Alexander Pope, who is remembered for effects of two different kinds entirely, distinguished by custom in his time, and by inattention in ours, as Poetry and Satire. Here is Pope,the poet:

Where'er you walk, cool trees shall fan the glade,
Treee, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade;
Where'er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,
And all things flourish where you turn your eyes.
C'Summer: the Second Pastoral, on Alexis. (131)

The trees are obliging, and the flowers blush; no tulip claims attention for a streak; all things are paying homage to the lady. Now listen to a line by Pope the satirist — Puffs, powders, patches, bibbles, billet-doux ... (Rape of the Lock 222) And here a reader of Hopkins may think to exclaim, Glory be to God for cluttered things! Having been up late at a ball, the lady in Pope's satire has slept in till about noon:

Now lap-top give themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake.
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knock'd the ground,
And the press'd watch return'd a silver sound. (218)

The bell would be a summons for her maid, since ladies don't get out of bed unaided. The maid is likely off dreaming, hence, after three bells, that peremptory slipper. And not until household wheels have been set in motion need she get around to ascertaining the time. How, in 1712, does a lady do that? She needn't open her eyes; she presses a button on her watch, which may not even have hands, and counts the chimes. The more you look at one couplet from "The Rape of the Lock," the more information you find packed into it. It's all done in seventeen words. Most unlike anything by Hopkins, still those lines do manifest the texture of particularity he would he interested in. Pope published them at 24, just three years after "Where'er you walk.' By our standards, young Pope was progressing fast. For the Pope who'd drawn breath to commence "Where'er you walk' did not foreshadow Hopkins in the least. That passage offered no information whatsoever; anything it claimed to be saying was untrue. ( Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade!) Loaded with fluent sham, a coterie compliment, it displays the Grandeur of Generality aslouch toward Helicon. The norms of the immature Pope, as codified by Johnson, foreshadow poets fashionable in the time of Hopkins: poets whose fashion forced Hopkins into what we must acknowledge as that perpetual look of eccentricity, of going into detail, as though numbering the tulip's streaks. If you must do that, accept that you're working in a genre the Victorians evolved, 'light verse" (Tom Hood, W.S. Gilbert). As for Pope, he had written "satire," and Victorian retribution. was absolute: no poet, Pope, merely a versifier. Lytton Strachey even portrayed a venomous little monkey who gibbered and shrieked as he poured hot oil on his enemies. Next, backtrack to about 1800 - Pope a half- century dead - and ponder the plight of William Wordsworth, another wrestler with particularity. Wordsworth had a passion for detailed information, and a passion for high- minded poetry, and he felt that the latter couldn't accommodate the former. Pedestrian accuracy could excite Wordsworth: I've measured it from side to side:
Tis three feet long, and two feet wide. (241) It's well known that Wordsworth inserted those lines into The Thorn, then on second thoughts took them out. But he never disavowed his need for exact numbers, dates, map references. And what he learned to do with such information was fit it not into the poem but around the Poem. An instance. Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798. That went above the poem, disguised as its title. Another instance: The point is two or three yards below the outlet of Grisdale tarn, on a foot-road by which a horse may pass to Paterdale - a ridge of Helvellyn on the left, and the summit of Fairfield on the right. That pertains to the phrase, Here did we stop, in his Elegiac Verses in Memory of my Brother, John Wordsworth, and it went below the poem, in a footnote. The poem, In thrall to the Grandeur of Generality, is no longer able to accommodate things the poet thinks are important. I know it is there; I saw it. that is the kind of thing Wordsworth wants to say. He is not stuffing some generality with plausible-sounding particulars; he is not, in short, Making Things Up. He lived until 1850; and during the latter part of his lifetime, and for some decades after his death, a reader who looked to verse for particularity found it in light verse: in the verse of John Hookham Frère, translator of Aristophanes; in the verse of Tom Hood, who developed a way of being lachrymose while seeming to trifle; finally in the rhymes of W.S. Gilbert, the century's champion packer of detail into verse, the only English writer who ever found (or needed) a rhyme for square on the hypotenuse. Gilbert and Hopkins were contemporaries. And as Hopkins wasn't published in his lifetime, so Gilbert, unlike Sullivan, wasn't knighted in Victoria's lifetime; his knighthood was bestowed by her easy-going son. And the bust of Gilbert that overlooks the Thames stands next to a bust of the chief designer of the London Drainage System. Faced with that order of fact, discussions of Hopkins tend to veer off toward respectability viaDuns Scotus.It's profitable, though, to dwell on the pattern we've been discerning. To generalize is to be an idiot, wrote William Blake in the margin of one celebration of high-minded generality, the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Unsurprisingly, that marginalium wasn't published till long after Blake was dead. Blake the poet went into eclipse, eventually to be rediscovered and co- edited by William Butler Yeats (1893). And the shape of Yeats' own career is instructive. His first reputation was based on a way of generalizing grandly- There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow (39)The most plausible explanation of the purple glow is that Innisfree names an island covered with heather, which is purple when it's in flower. If that is what Yeats was thinking of he was careful to hide it from his reader. If heather is in the poem it's there furtively. But, almost on his death-bed, Yeats was able to write

Every discoloration of the stone,

Every accidental crack or dent ...
hopkinsLapis Lazuli 293 that says, Glory be to God for dented things.

Its accuracy can be checked against the specified piece of lapis lazuli, the one Harry Clifton gave him, which is still in the Yeats family, and which Desmond Egan and 1 have both held in our hands. Yeatsian ease with that order of particulairity came as late as 1938. Back to Hopkins, finally. Save for the arresting fact that on 25th August 1868, when Gerard was 24, the family dog had the sense to bite Robert Bridges, his domestic circumstances have little to tell us. A more fruitful field to investigate would be the Victorian passion for Comparative Linguistics, which helps explain his study of a language as exotic as Welsh. Another would be the overarching rhythmic presence of a poet not then respectable at all: Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne's remedy for what had become the deadly and deadening iambic was wholesale imitation of what, by iambic standards, seemed to be Greek rhythms. IntoxIcated by such rhythms, the stories have it, Oxford under- graduates would circle the quadrangle, chanting:

... For winters rains and ruins are over, And all the season of snows and sins ... (Atalanta in Calydor@'212)

The power of assonance and alliteration joins words in pairs and triplets; force yourself to linger for sense, and you have to construct a scenario. There is no unlikelihood for which the mind cannot construct a scenario; Conan Doyle might have invented Sherlock Holmes solely to demonstrate that. Winter's rains and ruins - Easy. English winters are rainy, with a greyness that can make ruins look more ruinous. Season of snows and sins - Winter and snow: no problem. But sins? Well, snow forces people to stay inside, where they make up for the bleakness by rituals of fornication. But we're being ingenious; what links season and snows and sins is primarily the driving rhythm, that insistent alliteration. Thus the verse's authority stamps what the mind can make shift to unravel. In that light, examine the surge and sway of The Wreck of the Deutschland (28):

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou has bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing.. and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

That rhythmic drive--yes, it's Swinburnian; like. wise the linked assonance and alliteration C'breath and bread). We're compelled to say Yes, yes and keep moving. Yet God the Giver did give breath to Adam (Genesis 2:7), even breathed into Adam's nostrils. And bread? A gift He gave man before taking it away again; for when He said In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread (Genesis 3:19) He will have been retracting a gift of which we've no record. Remembering that, you could build a Paschal sermon on the bread that Jesus gave in the upper room. Hopkins is subverting Swinburne as fast as he's using him. Underneath that breath and bread, which sounds so Swinburnian, is a stable orthodox structure, if we can just slow down enough to see it. But do not suppose that a book of homiletics will carry you clear through the poem. The next line is very peculiar: World's strand, sway of the sea ...Sea allows you to think that strand means shore, that sway alludes to the ever-pulsing tides. God is, yes, all things; so He's the sea's shore, the tidal swing. But between Eden and our time the Babel incident has dis- solved Language into languages, each one freighted with ambiguities of the kind Victorian philologists took pleasure in tracing. So strand (see the OED) is now two different words spelled alike, one meaning the edge of the sea and the other a piece of rope. God is at the edge of the world; also, He binds it together. Sway likewise denotes both the ocean's ruling rhythm, and God's rule (sway) over that. He is being hidden in the details of the poem's language, to be discerned by much careful unpacking. Now idiosyncrasies commence to multiply:Thou hast bound boner, and veins in me, fastened me fleshIdiom says flesh and bones; Hopkins turns the idiom around: first the underlying bones, then veins and flesh. Alliteration with bones and flesh chaperones the verbs bound and fastened; but behind fastened we surely hear fashioned.Job (10:8) say, Thy hands have fash- ioned me not fastened. As for me, is it direct ob- ject-1 a; fastened--.or indirect-the fastening is for me? It's somehow both. He fastened flesh for me and made me out of it. We face deep theological waters, for the body is a binding, an obligation--a fastening--and it's also at some time to be discarded; still, bear in mind the Resurrection of the Body.

Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing. and dost thou touch me afresh?

Over again 1 feel thy finger and find thee.What with dread: the word-order bespeaks a Hopkins' mannerism, one that did not always serve him well. Boots/ . . . last he off wrings/ Till walk the world he can with bare his feet (159). Well, we'll read that maybe with blinking our eyes.) Here, though, it has expressive torque. Mat with dread says With what dread, but the lingering misplaced what points dread to doing.Dread is a doing of God; dread is intrinsic with God's workings. Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God. But doing? That word reaches back to bones and flesh which He made, being pure Act ... and dost thou touch me afresh?

Over again 1 feel thy finger and find theeGod incarnate felt the finger of Doubting Thomas, an archetype of us all. But these lines seem to say that Thomas, made in God's image, was reenacting a frequent gesture of God. As God's finger--that's a potent trope. His finger inscribed the Law on the stone tablets. Jesus said (Luke 11.20) that he cast out devils with the finger of God. He wrote with His finger words upon the ground (John 8:6). And Hopkins hinds finger into his alliterative sequence: fasten, flesh, afresh, feel, finger, find. That hints at a formula for Resurrection. The 35 stanzas of The Wreck of the Deutschland embody two main devices. One--learned from Swinburne - is the binding assonance, which seems to be producing the words as the rhythm moves forward. The other is a cool awareness of depths of history embedded in those English words: something Hopkins derived from inward- ness with the culture that was moving toward a New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, of which the first fascicle was published five years before he died. For it is facile to say that the stanza we've been examining is full of allusions to the Bible. That common-place requires re-focussing. What the stanza exploits is rather an effect the Bible, notably the King James Version, has had on many commonplace English words. Thus it is naive to say that finger designates One of the five terminal members of the hand, all beyond that being allusion. No, the OED entry for finger repays study: more than seven columns of small print. Little finger: used to signify the smallest member of the body (reference to 11 Chronicles 10:10). Viewed as 'the instrument of work'; esp. (after Heb. use) as attributed to God (Psalms 8.4, cited from as far back as a Saxon version of 825 A.D.; also Exodus 8.19). The word finger now contains those among some hundred other possibilities (including a'nip'of liquor--orig. U.S., and once alliteration has produced finger, other words which allitera tion has produced in its vicinity-notably God --will adduce its possibilities selectively. (Thus a 'nip'of liquor doesn't come to mind.) Decades ago, in a special Hopkins number, The Kenyon Reviewpublished an essay by Austin Warren on Victorian language-cranks, such men as hoped to bring back old Saxon words like graveyard and get rid of Norman one like cemetery. If no Saxon word had existed they'd coin one. Instead of Dormitory try Sleepstow. Hopkins found such impulses congenial. The recorded history of the English word Windhover dates from 1674. It names the kestrel, on which the OED is informative: A species of small hawk (Falce tinnunculus or Tinnunculus alaudarius), also called stannel or windhover, remarkable for its habit of sustaining itself in the same place in the air with its head to the wind. But the rest of Europe seems to lack a cognate term, so translators of the Hopkins sonnet into some other tongue must make do with the local word for Falcon, and lose all suggestion of its aplomb with the wind. Like the language-cranks, that aspect of Hopkins has faded, and now seems entangled in a set of gone enthusiasms. English slides toward what you hear on the BBC. But the OED abides and thrives, with its near-infinity of detail, and its Second Edition here and there cites Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Not under Windhover, though; there it makes do with Tennyson).

Works Cited

Pope, Alexander.The Poems of Alexander Pope Ed. John Butt. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963. Swinburne, Algernon Poems and Ballads: Atalanta in Calydon. Ed. Morse Peckham. New York. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1970. Wordsworth,William Wordsworth's Poetical Works. Vol. 2. Ed. Ernest De Selincourt. Oxford. Clarendon Press, 1944.Yeats, William Butler The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951.
Kenner, Hugh The Poetic of Detail

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2000

St Augustine and Gerard Manley HopkinsCreativity in Hopkins WorldCzech Perspective on Hopkins PoetryEugenio Montale and Hopkins PoetryGerman Perspective on Hopkins PoetryHeraclitus and Hopkins
GM Hopkins in Kildare
Hopkins and the ResurrectionSpansih Perspective on Hopkins Poetry